SPRINGFIELD — Both Jermalle Brown and Douglas Bufford were gang members hired to play a small role in helping combat violence on the South Side through a program hatched by Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration.
Paid $8.50 an hour with taxpayer funds to hand out anti-violence pamphlets in their South Shore neighborhood, the two low-income teens were part-time foot soldiers in the governor’s $54.5 million Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, a program he once described as “a comprehensive and concerted effort to keep our young people safe, off the streets and in school.”
Quinn launched that program a month before his 2010 election as an answer to gun carnage in the city — even though murders that year, Chicago Police would later disclose, dipped to a nearly 50-year low.
But instead of embodying a bold new way to fight bloodshed on the South Side, Bufford is now dead, and Brown is charged with his murder, putting a dramatic and deadly new blemish on the one-time Quinn showpiece, which was pilloried last week in a report by Auditor General William Holland.
At the same time they were on the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative payroll, Brown, then 19, and Bufford, 16, allegedly broke into a Grand Crossing home in July 2012 with one other man and announced a robbery in what Chicago Police believe was a gang-related crime.
It’s not clear, based on court and police records, what happened next. But Bufford was fatally shot in the back of the head with a shotgun, and Brown and an associate now face murder charges tied to the shooting.
Quinn encountered immediate GOP pushback when he launched the program, facing accusations it was merely a lavish, taxpayer-funded get-out-the-vote effort at a time in 2010 when the governor was trailing Republican Bill Brady in some Election Day forecasts.
The program came under fire again last week when Holland released a blistering audit that described it as “hastily implemented” and beset with “pervasive deficiencies in . . . planning, implementation and management.” Republicans called for a federal criminal investigation.
Until being contacted by the Chicago Sun-Times on Thursday, the governor did not know that a participant in his anti-violence program was dead, allegedly murdered by another, an aide said.
In a statement, Quinn’s office vouches for the overriding principle behind the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative. But they do not directly respond to the fact his program employed gang members or say anything about the murder.
The statement from Grant Klinzman, a Quinn spokesman, said: “It’s critical to have strong anti-violence programs for at-risk youth that provide mentorship and job training in order to reduce the risk-factors associated with violence. Community organizations must provide meaningful opportunities for our youth to keep them off the streets. That’s why today CJIA [Criminal Justice Information Authority] partners with programs that focus on preparedness for future employment and job training.”
While Quinn may not have been aware of Bufford’s death, his administration certainly knew about it two weeks after it happened, according to a series of emails within the now-disbanded Illinois Violence Prevention Authority.
Just days after the fatal home invasion on July 25, 2012, Bufford’s murder was brought to the Quinn administration’s attention by an incredulous South Shore activist, prompting the now-defunct state agency charged with administering the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative to scurry into damage control.
“First, let me begin by expressing my utter disbelief [t]hat your agency would spend money trying to make scholars out of young adults who terrorize our neighborhoods daily,” South Shore resident Gina Olson wrote in an email to an official in the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority.
“The South Shore community [has] some fine outstanding young adults and youth who are not criminals. Why aren’t these kind of people selected to represent the South Shore Chicago?” Olson wrote in the email, which was obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.
Illinois Violence Prevention Authority
“This is preposterous, please do not give these South Shore organizations another penny of my tax money if these are the types of youth they are going to pay. Who are the adults responsible for hiring them?” she continued. “They should be ashamed.”
“So many youth going away to college this year could not find jobs for the summer. But some conglomerate of organizations in South Shore employ people like the guy in this link with our tax money,” she wrote, alluding to an attached online news report that featured Brown’s booking photo. “I’m furious about this.”
Olson went on to ask the state agency why it was allowing government grant money to go “to hire thugs and criminals to do positive outreach in my community. Are you out of your minds?”
The decision to hire Brown and Bufford belonged to the Black United Fund of Illinois, a nonprofit that Quinn’s administration put in charge of doling out $2.05 million in Neighborhood Recovery Initiative funds to an array of community groups in South Shore. Former Ald. Sandi Jackson (7th) recommended the group to the Quinn administration.
The same day that Olson’s email arrived within the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority, the agency’s then-director, Barbara Shaw, reached out to two Black United Fund of Illinois officials and learned that the teens were part of the Mentoring Plus Jobs program, a component of the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative.
In a brief interview Thursday with the Sun-Times, Talmadge D. Betts, senior program officer for Black United Fund of Illinois, said the teens’ hiring was made at the “staff level,” and he offered details about what the teens were hired to do.
“They were getting skills, and they were getting those skills by handing out information, positive messages, engaging with people in the neighborhood related to those positive messages that were on the materials they handed out,” Betts said.
In a 2012 email, Betts identified Alice Palmer as his organization’s point person in the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative’s Mentoring Plus Jobs program for South Shore, of which Brown and Bufford were a part.
Palmer served in the Illinois Senate, involuntarily relinquishing her seat in 1997 to Barack Obama after being knocked off the ballot because her nominating petitions were insufficient. While Betts would not do so, a Quinn administration source confirmed the woman Betts referred to is the former state senator. Messages left at multiple phone numbers tied to Palmer were not returned Thursday.
“Dr. Palmer has first-hand familiarity with the youth involved in this tragic incident,” Betts said in his Aug. 8, 2012, email response to Barbara Shaw in which he promised to develop a “more formal response strategy” to the murder.
Simultaneously, Shaw reached out to a Pennsylvania contractor, Mee Productions, hired by the state to help in training participants in the Mentoring Plus Jobs program.
A week later, the founder and president of that organization, Ivan Juzang, responded with a six-paragraph response in which he vouched for the Mentoring Plus Jobs program as well as the larger initiative funding it, the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative.
He said his group had trained 3,000 young people as part of the Quinn administration’s program, and in 15 years of doing similar work elsewhere had “never had one employee commit a violent crime.”
“The home invasion attempted robbery late last month involving a group of young men and leading to the death of one of them is a tragedy,” Juzang wrote in an Aug. 15, 2012 email to Shaw and several others.
“We are concerned for all the families, the other [Mentoring Plus Jobs] participants traumatized by the death of someone they knew and residents of the community. That the victim and the alleged perpetrator have been part of NRI’s Mentoring Plus Jobs program leads us to pause in reflection,” Juzang wrote.
“As regrettable as these events were, the call to dismantle prevention-focused programs such as the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative is unjustified,” he continued. “The conditions that feed into young people making uninformed and dangerous choices call for more support for such programs, not less.”
Juzang, whose company no longer has any affiliation with the state, did not respond to an email or a message left at his Philadelphia office Thursday.
The shooting that claimed Bufford’s life was rooted in gang violence.
Brown and the other man charged in Bufford’s murder, Anthony Hull, were playing basketball in a park on July 15, 2012, when Bufford showed up and asked them to follow him, witnesses told police.
The trio — members of a Gangster Disciples faction — allegedly went to the apartment of a 16-year-old gang rival in the 1400 block of East 73rd Street, police said.
They forced themselves into the apartment, police said. But during the alleged home invasion, Bufford was shot in the back of the head with a 20-gauge shotgun, police said.
Hull and Brown allegedly admitted to detectives that they were in the apartment and were charged with home invasion.
Four days later, Bufford, nicknamed Moose, died at Stroger Hospital.
After he died, Hull and Brown also were charged with felony murder. That charge is brought when someone allegedly commits a felony that results in someone else’s death.
Both Hull and Brown have denied they were armed during the alleged home invasion. They told detectives that Bufford had a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver that police found in his hand at the crime scene.
Hull and Brown told detectives that Bufford and the 16-year-old gang rival were in a bedroom when the door closed and a shot was fired, the police reports said. They said they ran from the apartment and later learned their friend was the one who was shot, according to police.
But the 16-year-old gang rival told a different story: He said one of the alleged home invaders was armed with a shotgun, police said.
The police reports don’t identify who the suspected shooter was. A 20-gauge shotgun shell was found in the apartment, but police didn’t find a shotgun, according to the reports.
The new, deadly narrative now tied to Quinn’s anti-violence program unleashed a new round of criticism from Springfield’s top Senate Republican, who has called for a criminal probe into the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative.
“It’s a tragic story that someone is dead here, but we’re talking about people who were breaking and entering and probably using guns illegally. And these people are being paid by the taxpayers? Talk about a problem with accountability,” said Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont.
“Someone is dead. That’s pretty embarrassing when you were the one paying them,” she said. “I think the governor should be embarrassed by this story.”
Contributing: Rummana Hussain